Gone to Ithaca with the Butterfly Man

April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.

Reading next: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.

The Emigrants is perfect, and as such it is hard to talk about, because it doesn’t need any help in making itself understood.  But it’s also irresistible to talk about it, because it is so beautiful, and there are so many avenues of inquiry to pursue.  There’s its profound and necessary engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, and in the collective memory of the German people; there are its style and structure, the very long paragraphs and sentences which do not really seem long, but only unhurried, patient, quiet, melancholy, and the enigmatic, fragmentary epigrams and photographs that are Sebald’s trademark; there are the dreams, my God! the dreams, and the dazzling array of characters that flit into and back out of the narrative, and the globe-trotting settings that Sebald sketches so well; there is, in the background always, an exploration of nature and the environment, and its manipulation and abuse by humans, and its resilience and its danger, that bears some relationship to Werner Herzog’s films (though Sebald’s gentler, and less crazed about nature being murderous).

Most of all, for me, there are the intertwined themes of memory, time, truth, and fiction.  And let me start, in this post, by just enjoying one of the motifs that draw these things together so beautifully.  I speak of the “butterfly man,” Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov appears, in one way or another, in each of the four stories here.  In the first, a slide of the subject, Henry Selwyn, resembles “a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before.”  Sebald then inserts the photo of Nabokov (which you can see in this fine blog post on Sebald and Nabokov), holding his butterfly net in his dowdy shorts.  Speak, Memory is certainly the work most directly referenced here, with its emphasis on the fictional motifs which Nabokov delighted in finding in his own life story, its use of photographs to bring memory back to life.

But if anything, Sebald out-tricks the old trickster himself.  In the second story, Speak, Memory itself appears, being read by Lucy Landau when she first meets Sebald’s teacher Paul Bereyter, who is resting and trying to come to grips with his “condition” of claustrophobia and possible mental illness.  This seems a remarkable coincidence, but not impossible; it is only the fact of its being the second mention of Nabokov that tips the reader off that something beyond fact is going beyond here.

In the third story, “Ambros Adelwarth,” Nabokov himself becomes a presence in the book, an irruption of the fictional in the form of a real person.  This one story, incidentally, is an epic in its own right, and one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, in a scant 80 pages (including photographs).  The words epic and Nabokovian become unavoidable and inseparable after the following passage:

In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.  Have gone to Ithaca.  Yours ever — Ambrose.  It was a while before I understood what he meant by Ithaca….The sanatorium, which was run by a Professor Fahnstock, was in grounds that looked like a park.  I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning.  The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps.  Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know.  He comes round here quite often.

Have gone to Ithaca.  In the context of Sebald’s tale of Adelwarth, the phrase resonates through many emotions, many meanings, many allusions.  When we first read the phrase (and see an image of the visiting card itself) it reminds us of the Odyssey: Ithaca is the long-awaited (or is it long-avoided?) homeland, and the homesickness that afflicts so many of the characters is foregrounded here.  But the deep loneliness of Ambros, and his evident feeling of homelessness, also leads one to believe that the Ithaca here may be an eternal home: the grave.  The sanatorium that Ithaca finally signifies partakes of both of these associations, especially as “home” (Germany) seems, as one character puts it, “some kind of insanity lodged in my head.”

But Ithaca is also home of Cornell University, where Nabokov taught for much of his life, so we are prepared for the appearance of the lepidopterist himself.  Its gorges and waterfalls provide the sublime landscape for the tragic demise of Ambros, the willful self-destruction of his submission to shock treatments.  At the end, he wears “armlets made of some satin-like material” and a “green eyeshade” to ease his headaches.  Dressed like a dealer in one of the gambling palaces he’d visited with his companion Cosmo, he is late for his last appointment because he is waiting for the “butterfly man.”

Nabokov makes his most important appearances in the last story, “Max Ferber.”  He “popped out of the bloody ground” to save Ferber from suicide in Switzerland.  And then he appears again, in the memoir of Ferber’s mother, Luisa Lanzberg, as a ten-year-old Russian boy, already chasing butterflies.  He sticks in Luisa’s memory when her beloved Fritz proposes to her:

…though everything else around me blurred, I saw that long-forgotten Russian boy as clearly as anything, leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net; I saw him as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation.

A “messenger of joy.”  A beautiful, misguided phrase.  For the beauty of the first meeting of Luisa and Fritz is not a harbinger of joy and happiness: he is lost to her, and so is another beloved, and so, finally, is she herself, in the murder of the European Jewry.  And yet the joy existed: the joy was there, at the time, if inevitably lost to the irretrievable past, the past from which Germany has been cut off by the enormity of its guilt, from which its Jews have been cut off by the horror of their slaughter.  The indelible fictions that Nabokov prized above all others, those intricately patterned tapestries of language and image and metaphor, are the fictions of memory.  Beyond its status as fiction or memoir or autobiography, this book is a collection of memories, in all their messy, misremembered, pseudofictional glory.

Multiple Odysseys and Our Medieval Culture

August 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

Reading next: At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.

There comes a moment, occasionally, when you’re reading along and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the rows of the Cosmic Slot Machine line up and some insight smashes into the front of your skull.  Oftentimes it turns out to be no great fundamental innovation, but the truth behind something that’s become a truism, or something you’ve always known but never understood.

That happened for me as I was reading the fifth story, “Agamemnon and the Word,” in Zachary Mason’s book, an assemblage of fictional “concise variations” on the “crystallized,” canonical version of the Odyssey, said variations supposedly recovered from manuscripts, urns, and other sources and duly translated.  Something about reading these fragments — and especially this fifth, about a knowledge-hungry Agamemnon asking Odysseus and his other “sages” to give him the world’s knowledge in a book, a sentence, a single word — written by a computer scientist, with their artifice of scholarly footnotes linking the variations to the canonical text, made me think that the book could be emblematic of — perhaps is consciously about — our culture’s shift back toward the varietal, the local, the fragmentary, away from the canonical, the universal, the definitive.

Much later, near the end, comes “Record of a Game,” a story begun with a footnote stating that “Though written in credible Homeric Greek, the contents of this chapter cannot be dated much before the early Middle Ages,” and telling us that much of the “papyrus” is damaged, leaving sections of the text up to “conjecture.”  It’s one of my favorites in the book, reading the Iliad and Odyssey as instructional texts for a game of military tactics similar to chess, wildly corrupted and elaborated through years of use and elaboration.

All of this reminded me of Jeanette Winterson saying that “we might be going into a cultural dark ages.”  (You can find the quote here, in an interview with Bill Moyers, though I think she’d said it before then, as well.)  And in my profession, we’re constantly worrying about the creation of a historical dark age through the loss of digital information, the difficulty of capturing and preserving that information (though we seem to finally be turning a corner on that issue, as a profession).  Winterson’s worried about people no longer interested in culture, no longer reading, and whether that absence of market will mean the end of literature and other high art forms.  Archivists are worried about the loss of the historical record.

When Mason writes in his brief preface that “the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” he is almost certainly closer to the truth than the idea that one can find a definitive text of a definitive Odyssey, by a definitive Homer.  There were surely many different versions of the Odyssey, as many different versions as there were storytellers, almost all of them lost now.  And yet we — civilization, in general, especially the kind that gets called “Western” — have been engaged, for 600 years or so now, in the systematic canonization of information: putting down authoritative versions of events between covers, over the airwaves, and into the public record of newspapers and legal documents.  This is what scholars, journalists, culture workers of all stripes, have been engaged to do.  But what Mason’s book reminds me of is connection of the pre-Homeric tales of the adventures of a trickster lost on his way back home from war — of that fabled “oral culture” — to the wired world’s increasing proliferation of versions of narratives, “memes,” apocrypha, images real and doctored, commentary, flame wars, propaganda, misinformation.  Crowdsourcing: the creation of large-scale narrative through local knowledge and aggregated data.  Is it possible to see the Internet, again, as some hoped it would be, as a colossal hearth across which storytellers toss the tales they’ve heard, and listeners choose the ones they like best to pass along in their own ways?  Are we in a medieval age of multiplicity, rather than scarcity, of knowledge?

This seems one of the many possible ways to understand Mason’s reasons for reworking one of Western civ’s most fundamental texts, at this late stage in its history, after myriad other reworkings.  The irony, of course, is that Mason wrote a book, and certainly no one can blame him for that: it’s what writers still tend to do, after all.  Not only did he write a book, he published it first with a small press, Starcherone Books, after which the book was picked up and repackaged by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: it’s worked its way up the chain of respectability and wide distribution.  Again, still the logical move to make.  But like a number of other things I’ve read lately, I can’t help but think that the work would be improved, structurally and thematically, by turning away from mainstream publication, and producing it as an online text: a work of electronic literature, not an “e-book” or print book in digital form.  A work inherently unstable, a hypertext in which the reader chooses the order in which to read the narratives, or the narratives are provided in random order.  But one does not get paid (or gets paid very little) for e-lit: there is no market.  Its practitioners, by and large, give content away.  Winterson’s dark age looming, again.

Teeth and the Man I Sing

April 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

One last, short note on this.  I didn’t think about it much until I finished it — maybe I have allusion-fatigue after Welty — but the arc of this book’s plot does have some interesting parallels to the ancient epics, and especially the Aeneid.  It’s there explicitly in the first line, “Let’s sing about the man there…”

You have Lark losing his pack, wandering and finding comfort with a kind woman, then founding a new pack and going to war.  There are bits of Aeneas and bits of Odysseus here.  There’s maybe a sly reversal of the Circe myth in the story of Bonnie and Lark, in that unlike Circe changing Odysseus’s crew into wild beasts, Lark changes from dog to man under her nose, as she sleeps the sleep of the drugged.  Bonnie seems to kind of be Dido and Circe and Calypso and Penelope, at various times.

There’s also Venable’s great soliloquy in the third book (p. 175), on the violence to the earth done by the sprawling L.A. megalopolis.  The taming of the Italian wilderness, and the violence of that civilizing, is a theme that runs through the Aeneid, as well.

It’s all fairly subtle, and restrained.  Does seem to be there, though.

Obscure Mythology

March 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Of course there’s no such single thing as “Southern literature.” It’s silly to think so. But the term exists to be defined by writers like Welty; she’s one of the handful of names you’d think of in connection to it.

“June Recital,” a chapter/story in The Golden Apples, is willfully confusing, dense, allusive, tragic, and obscure. It’s a humid story. It feels like it’s been infected by the fever of the boy Loch Morrison, one of its two perspective-points (along with his sister, Cassie). Although no Southern narrative should be cursed with such cliche, it is, I am afraid, Faulknerian.

There’s the mysterious, serpentine path of the narrative, the way that the perspectives taken and the things they see seem somewhat random at first, working themselves out through the course of the story until they (maybe) make sense. So here we start with Loch, in bed, looking at the “vacant” house next door, and what he sees there is presented in a way that makes you wonder whether it’s a fever dream or actually happening: the house it called vacant, it is beautifully described as blending into its foliage, becoming part of the landscape, and yet there are hints that someone lives (or at least crashes) there, and we see two young people go in and start fooling around, and then a mysterious older woman goes in and starts putting up decorations made of newspapers, and then Fur Elise gets played on the piano. And Loch’s got his own impression of what’s going on, and it’s couched in a boy’s love of mystery and adventure and action (he wonders if the old woman is going to blow the house up).

Then we switch to Cassie, and her flashbacks to piano lessons with Miss Eckhart explain things as they are, we guess. Miss Eckhart is a strange German woman, who lives in the house (which used to be the MacLain house, the town’s nobility) with her elderly mother. Miss Eckhart, it seems, is now deranged. She had loved giving lessons to Virgie Rainey, who plays beautifully. Now, years later, Virgie the teenager is upstairs in the “vacant” house with a sailor, and Miss Eckhart is downstairs playing the piano and setting things up to burn the house down, which seems awfully convenient.

But then, myths often are, in that convenience is sometimes nothing more than fate revealing itself. (And one of the characters here is named Fate, by the way.) There seem to be echoes of the Arachne myth here, alluded to (perhaps?) by the tie-dying into the pattern of webs that Cassie’s doing to a handkerchief as she remembers her lessons, and in that Virgie seems to challenge her stern teacher and Miss Eckhart, just once, plays a grand, masterful, romantic piece for them one day when it’s storming outside. And the myth of Circe and Odysseus, as well, in more obscure ways: Miss Eckhart is explicitly compared to Circe. And Miss Eckhart’s ambition seems to be to keep Virgie with her, playing the piano for her in Morgana, as Circe longs to keep Odysseus forever. But then, in another possible allusion, King MacLain, the Zeus- and Odysseus-like serial fornicator, comes home after Eckhart’s attempted arson has failed, and sees her, and denies he knew her, and there seems to be something there as well. (But then, there’s also the way that Miss Eckhart’s hair catches fire, and this seems something like the scorn of Dido for Aeneas’s rejection of her, too.)

Maybe it’s obvious that Welty is not Joyce: there’s no one-to-one mythological resetting here, there is a web of meanings and significances. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve understood “June Recital.” I suspect this is one of the key passages:

…People saw things like this as they saw Mr. MacLain come and go. They only hoped to place them, in their hour or their street or the name of their mothers’ people. Then Morgana could hold them, and at last they were this and they were that. And when ruin was predicted all along, even if people had forgotten it was on the way, even if they mightn’t have missed it if it hadn’t happened, still they were never surprised when it came.

It’s this placing of people that King MacLain, especially, seems to escape. And it’s what is escaped, as well, through the flights that Miss Eckhart and Virgie both take in their music. The perspectives of Cassie and Loch fit in here: Cassie getting ready for a hay ride that night, full of pubescent sexual intrigue, and Loch just beginning to be curious about such things, watching Virgie and her sailor excitedly. Later that night, after the hay ride, Cassie thinks of when Virgie and Miss Eckhart passed each other after they’ve left the house, and how they didn’t say a word to each other:

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them — human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

The story’s difficult and complicated, in that necessarily unnecessary way that I, for one, think of as Southern. Mythology can be this way too, although it tends to have at least a superficial clarity: it’s only when you get below the surface that things get murky.

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